All Roads Lead to Chongjin

Back in October 2009 I wrote about new tourism agreements put into place between North Korea’s North Hamgyong province and Chinese counterparts in Tumen city.  In spite of North Korea putting the brakes on foreign travel in North Korea last December, the trend toward cooperation resumes.  Today North Korea Economy Watch conveys news that Tumen-Chongjin rail travel will soon be possible. Here is the Korea Herald report:

China to renew border rail link with N.K.

China will mend a rail link between one of its border cities and a North Korean port, a source familiar with North Korean affairs said Sunday, a move that indicates stronger economic ties between the two allies, according to Yonhap News.

North Korea and the municipal government of the Chinese city of Tumen, which borders the North, have recently agreed to repair the railway linking the city with North Korea’s northeastern port of Chongjin, the source said.

The source, requesting not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, added Tumen will lend Pyongyang $10 million, which will partly fund the restoration of the 170-kilometer-long railroad. Construction is due to begin in April this year, he said.

“The agreement on repairing the railway indicates North Korea has also agreed on letting China use the Chongjin Port, which will give it better access to the East Sea,” another source said.

China — which views North Korea as underdeveloped in terms of technology, but a convenient source of minerals and natural resources — has been increasing its North Korea investment in recent years, reaching deals on mines, railways and leasing a North Korean port to a Chinese company.

Pyongyang has also been optimistic on forging economic pacts with China, apparently hoping more investment will help enhance its underdeveloped heavy industries sector. Border trade in consumer items, from televisions to beer, has been booming between the two countries since the 1990s, but industrial ties have been formed only recently.

Recall that on October 4, the day after he arrived in Pyongyang, Wen Jiabao’s delegate Wang Zhifa [王志发], the vice-minister of tourism in the PRC, signed an agreement with his DPRK counterpart [ 康哲洙 – Kang Choesu?] on tourism exchanges:

Signing Tourism Agreements, Oct. 4, 2009, Pyongyang -- via National Tourism Admin. of the PRC

While it is certainly appropriate for Wen Jiabao to bring a big posse to Pyongyang to discuss multiple levels of issues, something about this particular photo reminds me of Mao standing in the background holding his breath while Zhou Enlai sits down to ink the Sino-Soviet Alliance in 1950.  If something goes wrong, let the signatory take the fall, while Premier Wen can walk away unblemished if North Korea does something nuts, like, say, shoots a 53-year-old female tourist in the back.

But Vice-Minister Kang is a known entity to the Chinese, having attended conferences at the behest of the Jilin tourism bureau in 2007, as this data-rich report from China Economic Weekly reports; Kang also spent some time that year in Yanji.

Jiamusi, destination for North Hamgyong tourism officials -- via Wikipedia

Cross-provincial, trans-national linkages always get short shrift in Western analyses of North Korea and the Sino-North Korean relationship, which is too bad.  Why, for instance, isn’t it news when a North Hamgyong tourism delegation is traveling to Jiamusi, one of the most peripheral regions of Heilongjiang province, looking to increase Chinese tourism (and perhaps investment) in the DPRK?  (More info here.)

But all of this recent activity could also be seen in a rather ominous light.  Recent reports from within the DPRK note speculation among North Korean officials that the regime in Pyongyang is holding out a more-open Rajin as compensation for heightened — and deeply necessary — Chinese aid (see Good Friends Report No. 324: “”The Only Option is Full Collaboration with China,” Central Party Official says.”)

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